It is 1pm on a Thursday in mid-November and about 40 people have crowded into Sund PowerPlant’s small control room on the Faroe Islands.
They are waiting for Finn Jakobsen, manager of distribution and production at SEV, the utility that owns Sund, who has his finger poised over a button that will instantly switch off 10 per cent of the islands’ energy supply.
He looks confident that everything will be OK, but he has also told his audience more than once where the fire exit is, in case they need to make a quick escape. Thankfully, the emergency exits will remain unused.
Instead, when Jakobsen finally hits the switch, the meter of engine number two drops to zero, and the frequency display shows a momentary dip. But there is no blackout, no alarm bell, no drama.
Why? Because less than a second after the engine went down, SEV’s new IT system sent a signal to three industrial businesses on the other side of the island, which automatically cut their energy demand when he hit the switch, rebalancing the grid frequency and allowing the lights to stay on.
On the Danish mainland, DONG Energy has up to 30 seconds to respond to a drop in demand before a blackout, but on the Faroe Islands, SEV has less than a second to respond.
The IT system is known as Power Hub, a virtual power station designed by Danish utility DONG Energy under the European Union’s Twenties R&D programme, which aims to find ways of integrating rising levels of intermittent wind energy onto the grid.
The Faroe Islands, a remote archipelago that is officially part of Denmark, is the perfect location for testing some of these emerging technologies. The outpost is planning to significantly increase its reliance on wind power as a means of reducing hefty oil import bills, and at the same time it is keen to tackle the fairly frequent power blackouts that continue to afflict the islands.
DONG Energy maintains utilities can significantly reduce their costs through the use of virtual power stations, such as Power Hub, as instead of building costly new fossil-fuelled power plants for back up, they are able to reduce peak power demands in a controlled manner.
These so-called “demand response” or “negawatt” models are not a new concept, having been succesfully pioneered in the US. But DONG hopes that Power Hub will add a new degree of flexibility to existing smart grid systems, integrating a range of distributed energy sources including solar panels and electric vehicles, while still enabling the automated reduction in power demand at peak times that defines all “negawatt” schemes.
So far it seems like the concept is working well on the Faroe Islands.
From SEV’s point of view, the three businesses signed up to the scheme use 10 per cent of the energy on the island, so persuading them to link up to PowerHub and agree to curb their demand at key times is far simpler and less costly than trying to get every home to join the trials through the use of advanced smart appliances.
Moreover, it seems that all three businesses are happy to sign up – they see it as an opportunity rather than a burden.
All three companies are part of the fishing industry, and despite running different operations, they are all in the convenient position of being able to drastically reduce their energy demand at a moment’s notice without impeding their operations.
For example, Bergfrost Cold Storage boasts a storage tunnel drilled into a mountain at the harbour side, which means it can lose power for 24 hours without causing damage to its frozen foods.
Hiddenfjord Salmon Farm, by contrast, can only operate for up to 15 minutes without power loss harming its fish. After 15-30 minutes, three to four million fish would be lost, costing the company a minimum of 20 million DKK (£2.2m). But SEV knows the constraints and the company maintains 10-15 minutes of controlled outage is far better than the prospect of emergency blackouts that can last for hours.
With every millisecond counting after an outage, rapid response is vital. Once the Power Hub has balanced out the grid by automatically reducing power demand from the participating businesses, SEV then has 15 minutes of downtime to power up another generation source, such as the hydropower stations dotted around the archipelago.
Hiddenfjord also has its own back-up generator that it is hoping to link up to the virtual power plant so it can sell energy back to SEV in an emergency, creating yet more flexibility on the grid.
But while the IT systems for PowerHub may be in place, DONG says it is still exploring the best way to reward those companies that agree to take part. Should they receive payments in return for their participation, or is the reduced likelihood of emergency blackouts incentive enough?
Anders Birke, lead IT architect at DONG Energy, maintains that if payments were to be offered they would probably be lower than existing demand response schemes in other countries, simply because the industries are not sacrificing profits by taking part in the scheme.
While Power Hub might work for a small community with vast amounts of wind power, is it really feasible for more complex power grids?
Peter Vinter, DONG Energy’s system architect with overall responsibility for Power Hub, insisted the system could be easily adapted to other island communities. But again, he said the trick is to find those businesses that can reduce their energy demand without disrupting their operations and undermining their profitability.
For example, companies in a hot holiday destination like the Canary Islands, might be able to reduce their air conditioning energy use for half an hour at a time, without frustrating employees or tourists too much.
“We’ve started by taking our own medicine,” added Vinter. “Right now we’re integrating our own climate air conditioning system at our headquarters in Denmark to see how long we can interrupt service without impairing the comfort in the office.
“But it’s a very unique experience every time you visit an island to find out what are the pain points there in terms of increasing renewables, finding out what assets are available and how flexible they are.”
This article first appeared in BusinessGreen